Thursday, 17 December 2015

Sabi, Time Passed and Time Passing in the Japanese garden.

An aspect of sabi is in  the quality of 'naturalness in the garden
Sabi 錆 can be likened to a ‘sister-concept’ of wabi 侘び,[1] the pair are closely woven into the fabric of aesthetics in Japan, and hence they can both be applied to the qualities and appreciation of gardens. Whereas wabi is derived from a “feeling of loneliness, or poverty”; sabi , encompasses a sense of unpretentious imperfection, a knowledgeable artlessness in the execution, and a feeling of the inevitable passage of time. Donald Richie[2] states that the etymological root of the term is derived from the verb sabu (‘to wane’), and susabi (a noun meaning ‘desolation’). The term sabishi, meaning ‘lonely’ is still in use in modern Japanese. From this we can grasp that the term sabi, is particularly concerned with expressing a state of change or alteration that is governed principally by temporal processes. Following the example of Matsuo Bashō, the term became associated in the eyes of poets with the notion of bleakness, desolation and the incomplete; but the negative connotations were tempered by a modulating qualities of stillness, connectivity and potential. Qualities that arise because the term is rooted in an observation derived from natural processes (as opposed to speculative philosophy), and recognition of the cyclical movement from fullness to emptiness to fullness.

Sabi is a mood qualifier, the term identifies a fleeting, sometimes barely perceptible moment.
A garden may be perceived to be imbued with the spirit of sabi, it is frequently a quality associated with the Tea garden, or roji. This is because Tea masters, such as Takeno Jōō and Sen no Rikyu, favoured what became known as wabi cha, where great emphasis was placed on the refinement of the tea ceremony towards simplicity and a positive lack of ostentation. Therefore a garden expressing a sense of sabi is a garden lacking in pretention, and a space that exudes a positive connectivity with what may be interpreted as ‘naturalness’. The roji is in essence elemental, a path that guides the tea participant towards the tea house. The spirit of the path is derived from the imagery of a way leading to an isolated rustic mountain dwelling or lodge deep in the countryside. A tea garden that displayed grandiosity, cleverness, or ostentation would not imbue the tea participant with the correct desirable emotional qualities, which would aid him or her to participate in the tea ceremony in a state of mind conducive to calm equanimity. This observation illustrates well the fundamental notion that the Japanese garden is intended to influence the emotional and spiritual state of the observer. It is something that much attention is paid to in the construction of the garden, from the choice of materials, to their relative dispositional relationships in space. All design concerns are geared towards how the garden interacts with the viewer, of recognizing that the garden and viewer are intimately bound together. The one complimenting the other, as yin and yang are not separate entities but aspects of a whole.

The apparent simplicity of architecture in the garden hides a complex appreciation of what is simple.

Stone lanterns were introduced into gardens by Tea masters.
Sabi can be seen in the use of secondhand materials in the garden, miegakure. That is materials that have acquired the patina of age and use being especially prized. Rocks with a scattering of lichens or mossy growths, stepping stones that reveal aspects of long term wear or have been weathered to soft edges (as opposed to the sharp break lines of freshly quarried stone), or stone lanterns with perhaps signs of damage that have been ‘healed’ by long term exposure to the elements. Plant material that displays a sense of maturity, or has an aged quality is also likely to display a sense of sabi. One only need to recall the sense of walking through a woodland of mature trees, it is not just the height and mass of the trees that impresses the senses, but the very atmosphere of age, of time passed, that can hold us in awe. It is noticeable that when creating traditional gardens in Japan what is sought is at the time of ‘completion’ of the garden (construction phase), the garden already has a sense or impression of being aged. Likewise, it is often the case that trees in a Japanese garden are ‘odd shapes’, leaning one way or another, there may be gaps in the canopy cover and so on. Contrast this to trees available for garden creation in the West which are uniformly bolt upright with an even spread of branches forming the canopy. It is very difficult to purchase suitable trees for Japanese gardens in the West, there is simply too much regularity to their forms, or one could say ‘a lack of sabi’.

The elegant forms of garden trees revealed by empty space is an expression of sabi.
The 14th C Japanese poet Kenkō wrote: “In everything no matter what it may be, uniformity is undesirable. Leaving something incomplete makes it interesting and gives one the feeling that there is room to grow.” [3]

Irregularity, or a sense of incompletion, gives, as it were, something for the imagination of the viewer to grip on to. It bestows a sense of time passed and hence an awareness of time passing, of process, movement and transformation. In this Beauty, however fleeting it may seem, is captured and brought into the light to be experienced. Perfect symmetry, or a flawless form, is a closed entity, one that does not allow for engagement by the one experiencing it. This is the case for the senses, sight, sound, touch, taste, as much as it is for the imagination. If there is no space for the imagination to engage with, the viewer or the experiencer will remain on the ‘outside’ of the experience. A separation occurs which cannot be bridged, subject and object will remain in opposition, and the essential interdependence of subject and object will not be recognised.

The apparent randomness of a stepping stone path reveals sabi.
Sabi can also be noted in seasonality, the passing from one season to the next. Each season has its own particular qualities, spring with its fresh growth and quality of re-awakening, summer has the quality of reaching a peak of development, lushness and plentitude, autumn brings colour into the trees as if they were making one last exuberant display before falling, winter reveals the garden retreating into itself, with-drawing back from whence it emerged. With each turn of season there can be a certain wistful feeling as we are reminded of the passing of time, and so reminded of our own mortality. Yet, beyond this, we can recognise that process, a seamless process is active, of which human beings as much as any other being or material is subject. As much as we notice the passing of time, we can be aware of a deeper movement, which is ‘beyond time’ as revealed through non-relativistic conception. This mode of perception allows us to feel deeper the quality inherent in the Japanese garden where we become aware of a ‘timelessness’ both outside and within ourselves. Sensitivity to qualities, such as sabi, allow us to enter and engage with Japanese gardens more thoroughly, to see beyond form, and experience something of the unfathomable essence of what is before us.








[1] Sabi  or ;  see also blog post, Wabi; Spirit Unbound 17/11/13.
[2] Donald Richie, ‘A Tractate On Japanese Aesthetics’. Stone Bridge Press, 2007.
[3] The Tsurezuregusa of Kenkō (Essays in Idleness). Translated by Donald Keene. Columbia University Press. 1967.